Sex workers are thriving on Cameo
OnlyFans may be the preeminent platform for adult content, but a number of performers are finding a new home on Cameo.
Left to right: Eva Long, Alix Lynx and Manuel Skye
OnlyFans flourished during the pandemic, growing to 120 million users in peak lockdown. So too did Cameo, the app where celebrities like JoJo Siwa, Brian Cox and Fiona the Hippo offer custom videos for fans, charging anywhere from $20 to $2,500, also exploded in popularity too.
Now, two years on, both apps are providing online sex workers with a highly monetisable platform. That’s right, there are currently around 200 porn stars listed on Cameo. The personalised videos show adult performers in string bikinis ordering viewers to “punch [themselves] in the balls,” thanking customers for “wanking it hard to [their] lesbian porn,” and praising the “fingering” skills. Linking these two apps together, many adult stars have created a sort of content universe, imploring Cameo users to check out their OnlyFans.
Cameo’s community guidelines ban its performers from posting content that is “sexually explicit” or “pornographic, indecent, profane, [and] obscene,” including masturbation, both “real or simulated,” “fully nude buttocks” and “female nipples.” As a result, Cameo videos approach sexuality in much more suggestive manner that much of what appears on OnlyFans.
Cameo’s sexual content is not there by accident. Like most of the adult performers I talked to, Manuel Skye was recruited by Cameo because of his online success as a porn star. Manuel entered the porn world at 37 after an Achilles injury sustained during dodgeball left him unable to walk for over a year. He quit his job as a manager and “started to do the things I really want.” One of these things was porn. At Cameo, he makes fairly-safe-for-work videos that explore sides of his personality he doesn’t show on OnlyFans. “I can make something sexy and uplifting, make them laugh and cry,” he said. Surprisingly, the differences between videos on the two sites are not that large (on Cameo he wears a thong, on OnlyFans he’s fully nude).
“Some people will be sneaky. They're just trying to get a jacking off video for the price of a Cameo,” he says. He directs those customers to his OnlyFans. But for some, the tamer videos offered by Cameo are more appealing than the ‘real thing’ they can get on OnlyFans. Manuel’s customers range from teenagers to 60-somethings, including a son asking for a striptease video for his 68-year-old mum, as well as a mother requesting a video for her son. Other people seek sex advice. “Most sex workers are sexual healers,” he says. His favourite requests are for pep talks from friends of gay men who have recently come out of the closet. “I congratulate them. I make them realise that this is the first step in living the life that they want, to always be true to themselves and not to give a fuck about anyone else,” he says.
Like Manuel, other porn stars have been actively scouted by Cameo. “I was surprised at first. Normally companies are scared to work with adult performers,” says performer Alix Lynx, who was recruited by the platform. On Cameo, as with OnlyFans, Alix has found that people are mainly seeking companionship, not sex. “If people are messaging me on Cameo, they are lonely or they just want someone to talk to,” she says. Fellow performer Eva Long was recruited at an adult entertainment conference in Las Vegas back in 2019. Three years on, she appears to be one of the top adult stars on the app based on reviews (Cameo wouldn’t release data). “Sometimes I was making more on Cameo than I was on OnlyFans,” Eva says. Many requests were for people who felt lonely during lockdowns. “My buddy's been quarantined, he’s single, he hasn't seen anyone or talked to anyone in who knows how long. Can you cheer him up? I felt like I was helping in a time where you felt like you couldn't help anyone.”
To Professor Alan McKee of the University of Technology Sydney, a specialist in porn fandom, it makes sense for Cameo to have porn stars on its site. “Historically, every new form of communications technology has been driven by pornography, going right back to the invention of the still camera in the 19th century,” he says. “So I suppose the real surprise of Cameo is that it took them this long to get there.
“[Back then], it was commonly understood that being a theatre actress was very close to, if not the same thing, as being a sex worker,” he continues. “One would go to see Sarah Bernhardt at the theatre, and then one would send her one’s card and a bunch of flowers backstage, and if you were lucky, she would go out for dinner with you. That kind of link between celebrity sex work and fandom has been there for as long as the entertainment industries have existed. What is different now is that it's democratised. Now, anybody who has 50 bucks can get a Cameo.”
Professor McKee says the majority of academic research is about helpless people to whom pornography is done. "And so, the idea that the consumers of pornography would think about it in that way doesn't make any sense to academics, because they're used to thinking of consumers of pornography as a mass who just take whatever is given to them and it does things to them." Cameo is one of the few sites to recognise that porn has fandoms, just like Marvel does, for instance. Mainstream social media sites usually ban porn (aside from Twitter), meaning fandoms don’t have a chance to flourish.
Though the pandemic is mostly behind us, sex workers are remaining on Cameo as the platform treats them better than most mainstream apps. To be fair, the bar is low. Sex workers are used to being kicked off platforms once their contributions have helped build a successful business. Facebook banned references to sex work in 2018, while Tumblr banned NSFW images the same year. Infamously, OnlyFans declared it was banning erotic content in August 2021, but walked back their decision following a loud backlash. As sex worker Jasmine Rice told The New York Times when the ban was first proposed, “[OnlyFans] made all their profits off the back of sex workers and are now discarding them.”
During the pandemic, PornHub and cam sites had surges in viewers. Porn became much more meaningful to certain people than it had previously been. On top of this, Cameo offered a place for fans to get to know their favourite porn stars on a more intimate, emotional level — not just as performers, but as complex human beings, who were funny and relatable, and who could cheer their spirits when the world seemed to be falling apart. Talking to a porn star on Cameo became a lifeline for some fans (one porn star told me that a fan ordered weekly Cameos).
Cameo’s acceptance of porn stars should be a lesson to the rest of social media. Adult content and their fans shouldn’t be ignored. With over 36 billion hits to PornHub a day, porn is a huge part of the entertainment industry, and sex workers deserve to be as legitimised as much the next actor or influencers. Cameo is helping pioneer a shift in how we view adult entertainers. It’s time the rest of the media followed suit.